By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 19, 1946
“Your prejudices,” declared Jimmie Frise, “are costing you money!”
“I’m willing to pay,” I retorted, “for my principles.”
“Look,” pleaded Jim, “it’s a sure thing.”
“In this life,” I countered, “nothing is sure.”
“Aw, for Pete’s sake,” cried Jimmie. “I tell you we can pay for the winter’s coal with this race. It’s the end of the racing season. All kinds of long shots come home at the end of the racing season. It’s the time for trainers and jockeys and horse owners to balance the budget.”
“You mean,” I sneered, “that racing is crooked…!”
“No sport on earth is as rigidly policed as horse-racing,” replied Jim hotly. There’s a continent-wide organization that embraces every track and every breeder and every angle of the horse-racing game and it is devoted to keeping horse-racing on the level….”
“Okay,” I scoffed, “then how about these benefit races, for balancing the budget?”
“At the end of the season,” said Jim picking his words carefully, “there is a sort of devil-may-care spirit that enters the sport. Trainers who have been nursing their horses along, so as not to overtax them, allow them to go full out in one last fling. Jockeys who are cautious riders suddenly became inspired with the spirit of the end of the season and ride with an abandoned quality that upsets all the calculations of trainers, other jockeys and all the dopesters who do the adding up.”
“Adding up?” I inquired.
“Sure,” said Jim. “How do you suppose the experts pick the winners? Simply by adding up all the factors that go into the race; the condition and past performance of the horse; the trainer; and the jockey. But at the end of the season, all these factors are muddled up by this sort of last-fling spirit. Nobody knows what horse is going to win.”
“Nobody but you!” I laughed.
“More long shots come through this week,” insisted Jim, “than at any other season.”
“Because nobody can pick the winner,” I suggested.
“Exactly,” agreed Jim.
“Then how do you know you’ve got a sure thing?” I triumphed.
“This horse, Schnitzler,” stated Jim flatly, “has been running second and third all season. Why? Because his trainer has been ordering the jockeys to ride him easy and let him develop himself. No forcing. The trainer figures, from Schnitzler’s pedigree, that he is a horse that develops slowly but steadily instead of one of those flash performers that is all through before he’s four years old.”
To Balance the Budget
“It’s all Dutch to me,” I interrupted. “Jim, look. I just don’t care for racing. It’s like stamp collecting. Either you like it or you don’t like it.”
“Schnitzler,” said Jim slowly, “is going to win today in the fourth race. And it’s going to pay 30 to 1.”
“You mean.” I asked, “that for a $2 ticket, he’d pay $30?”
“For a $10 ticket,” said Jim in a low, vibrant voice, “he’d pay … THREE… HUNDRED … DOLLARS!”
“Aw, Jim,” I pleaded, trying to wake him from the trance, “how do you know? What facts have you got to justify this fixation that’s got you, like some sort of lunacy…?”
“I,” said Jim, still in that low intense voice, “know the trainer, I know the jockey and… I know the horse!”
“Ah,” I said, “so you’ve bet on him before?”
“I bet on him all through the season,” admitted Jim.
“But he always came second or third?” I inquired.
“And I always bet him on the nose,” said Jim.
“And you’re going to bet him today again, on his last race of the season?” I demanded.
“The budget,” said Jim with that faraway look that hypnotized race fans wear, “the budget is just about to be balanced.”
“Tomorrow maybe,” I sighed, “you’ll wake up. Ten or fifteen dollars poorer…”
“I’ll have the money,” said Jim, with certainty, “for the winter’s coal.”
All this was at 10 o’clock in the morning.
At 1 o’clock, Jim appeared at the office door with his hat on.
“Coming?” he said heartily.
“I…” I said.
It was a beautiful day. Too beautiful to sit alone in an office pecking at a typewriter.
“Well,” I chuckled, “I might as well go, if for no other reason than to watch the expression on your face as all these castles in the air come tumbling down…”
So we drove out to the track in the lovely Indian summer afternoon and once again I found myself in that completely alien atmosphere of the race-track, surrounded by thousands of people all concentrated on a sport that leaves me cold. I never feel so completely a stranger on this earth as at the race-track. Sometimes I feel all these thousands are queer. And then, suddenly, I feel a little queer myself.
We got into the grandstand where Jimmie seemed to know everybody by their first name. It was like a club. Very chummy. Full of a lingo of its own. I began to feel queer.
These race meetings are something like a symphony concert. Each race is like a number on the program. Each number builds up, like a symphony, to a familiar climax. The first race, there was the usual tuning up, as the horses were walked to the starting post. Then the intense gathering up of feelings and emotions as the horses prepared for the start. That would be like the fine string music of the symphony. Then, suddenly, like the brass and woodwinds of the orchestra letting loose, the start! Then a kind of gathering pandemonium, as the orchestra of these thousands of fans swelled and rose to a crescendo that ended as climactically and violently as a Beethoven symphony …
Jim’s horse lost. He also lost the second race, and the third.
He asked me to come under the grandstand for a cup of coffee and while we were drinking the coffee, he asked me if I had any money.
“I never bring money to a race-track, Jim,” I informed him. “You know that. I have my principles. And I safeguard them.”
“Haven’t you got even five bucks?” pleaded Jim.
“I haven’t got even five bucks,” I replied firmly, fondling the $10 in $1 bills I had in my left-hand pants pocket.
Jim looked desperately around.
Meant For a Killing
“Look here,” I said sternly, “didn’t you say this horse Schnitzel or whatever it is ran in the fourth race?”
“Yes,” gritted Jim. “And I want to put 10 bucks on him. But that last race, the brother of one of the jockeys gave me a hundred to one chance on that horse I bet …”
“I see,” I said, amused. “Sure things all over the place!”
“I was going to make enough to put maybe 30 or 40 bucks on Schnitzler,” pleaded Jim. “But now I’ve only got four bucks left. Do you see anybody you know that you could borrow a few bucks…”
“I certainly do not!” I stated sharply.
“Six bucks,” muttered Jim bitterly. “Six bucks, six measly bucks. Take a walk around and see if there’s anybody you …”
“My friends,” I stated, “are not to be found around race-tracks. Why don’t you make a touch on any one of those sportsmen surrounding you up in the grandstand? You call each other by your first names…”
“I…I…” said Jim anxiously.
We finished the coffee and walked out on to the lawn.
Jim was acting like an expectant father. He was breathing big deep breaths, biting his teeth together, putting his hands deep in his pockets and pulling them out again. He looked at his four dollars several times. And he kept his eyes on the clock. All around us, the eager swarms were reading their programs with fatuous expressions. Already the procession towards the betting enclosure had begun.
“Hello, Mr. Clark,” came a pleasant voice.
I turned and recognized one of my neighbors from up the street.
“Why, how do you do!” I replied heartily. “Are you a follower of the sport of kings?”
“Oh, I usually come out for a few races,” said my neighbor, whom I had always taken for a deacon at least.
Jimmie was gripping my elbow and squeezing it meaningfully. I shook my arm free.
“How have you done?” asked the neighbor.
“Oh, I don’t …” I began.
But Jimmie, linking his arm through mine to show we were buddies, broke in: “As a matter of fact,” he said, “my little friend here has been cleaned in the last three races. And he’s trying to borrow six bucks off me…”
“I am not!” I cut in indignantly, but Jim got a Judo hold on my funnybone that almost made me screech with pain.
“Six bucks is all he wants,” cried Jim jovially. “But one of my superstitions is, never lend money to the guy you came to the races with. It’s okay to borrow from anybody else. But NOT the guy you came with …”
“Why,” laughed my neighbor, reaching into his pocket.
“Not…” I began but again Jim, laughing jovially, gave my elbow such a horrible dig with his digits that I felt myself wilting And at the same instant, he reached out and took the $6 my neighbor was holding out, and stuffed them playfully, in my breast pocket.
“There you are! Come on,” he chuckled, “come on and let’s place the bet…”
And before the slightly puzzled gaze of my neighbor, he swung me around and started up the lawn.
At the same instant. I felt two large hands seize me by the shoulders from behind. And glancing back, I saw another very large and heavy stranger had Jimmie by the shoulders. And we were both being propelled forward at a rate that kept our feet trotting smartly to keep us from falling.
“Here, what the dickens are …” I shouted.
But the two of us, side by side, were hustled through the crowd, up the lawn, out the side entrance past the grandstand and towards the gate.
In the privacy of the entrance, the big men relaxed their shoving. I shook myself.
“Will you inform me,” I demanded, setting my hat back on straight, “will you inform me the meaning this outrage!”
“Okay, bud,” said my man, dusting his hands. “Okay, scram!”
The whole thing was incomprehensible, bewildering. Out-of-place though I feel at a race-track, this was too much.
“I’ll call the police!” I grated, readjusting my clothing.
“Heh, heh, heh,” said both the large men.
“Look,” said Jimmie, who was pale as Swiss cheese, “look, boys, you’re making a mistake. My friend was only …”
“Aw, stow it, bud,” said the one with the black hat, “now scram. We seen the whole transaction. We seen you approach the gent. We seen you pass the tip. We seen you accept the money …”
“Jim!” I commanded. “What is this all about?”
“These are the Pinkerton men,” explained Jim pleasantly. “They watch out for touts and hangers-on. They have mistaken us for touts…”
“Heh, heh, heh,” agreed the two large men, preparing to shove us right out the gate. “If we ever saw a tout, this little guy is the champeen. Come on now! OUT!”
And before I could even go of my own volition, the big fellow in the brown hat took me by the back of the coat collar and the pocket and fingered the 10 one-dollar bills I had there.
And the two large men walked businesslike back into the grounds.
“But the race, the race!” suddenly yelled Jimmie, snatching the $6 from my breast pocket and adding it feverishly to his $4. “We’ve got to get this on the race …”
“Jim,” I ordered loudly, “I came here as an innocent spectator. I have been treated to every indignity…”
A bugle blew.
“Too late, too late!” moaned Jimmie, leaning against the fence, a broken man.
We stood there. We heard the silence fall. The slow, muttering silence. Then we heard the wild horse roar … “They’re off!” Then we listened to the rising symphony of the roaring grandstands. Then a mad cheer.
Out the gates poured the little dribble of people who always quits after the fourth, or fifth, or sixth race.
“Who won?” croaked Jimmie, seizing one of them by the lapels.
“A horse named Schnitzler,” said the passer-by disgustedly. “Paid 30 to 1.”
Jim crumpled beside the fence and sat, huddled, counting the $10 in his hands.
I ran my left hand cautiously into my pants pocket and fingered the 10 one-dollar bills I had there.
“Okay, Jim,” I croaked too. “Let’s go and get the car and go home.”
Editor’s Notes: As noted before, Jim was the gambler of the two, who would participate in activities like attending the race track and pool halls that Greg would not. Greg was more of a follower of his Victorian upbringing. Jim was hoping for enough money to pay for all of his coal needed for a coal furnace for the upcoming winter.
Touts at race tracks were people who offered racing tips for a share of any resulting winnings.
Pinkerton men were a generic definition for private detectives. In this case they would have been hired by the race track to root out undesirables.
By Greg Clark, May 4, 1946
“Pull up here!” commanded Jimmie Frise, his leg already swung overboard from the open car.
“There’s much better fishing,” I protested, as I slowed, “about half a mile farther down.”
“Here’s the place,” announced Jim, excitedly, and he was grabbing for his fly rod to set it up.
“If we park here,” I muttered, “we’ll block the trail.”
“Last season, just about this time of year,” cried Jim, pointing up his rod, “I took five trout of over a pound each. And I must have lost 20. Twenty good ones.”
I backed and forwarded the little touring car until it was hinched well up against the side of the woods road.
Right below us, the beautiful river flowed in all its early May glory. The floods had long since passed, the river was getting down to normal. Its color was not too clear. It was just right.
Where Jimmie had ordered us to halt, an ideal trout-fishing stretch of water hastened and paused, boiled and simmered, for a length of maybe 300 yards. There were shallow, swift bouldery passages, where the water tumbled and raged amid boulders the size of a piano. Then there were pools, where the water rested and whirled, the white foam making that tactical shade under which big trout love to hide.
Jim jointed up his rod with trembling hands. He fastened on his reel. Threaded his fat fly line up through the guides. Linked on a nine-foot leader to which he had already tied a good big streamer fly, a badger streamer with crimson body.
And before I had my rod out of its case, Jim was sliding down the bank towards the stream.
Before I had my line threaded through the guides, he was hip deep in the bouldery section.
And just as I was tying on a Clark’s Ghost – a fly of my own design, a streamer made of silvery gray feathers and silver body – I heard a muffled shout above the low roar of the river. And there was Jim, leaning back picturesquely, his nine-foot rod bent in a gorgeous arc, and a big trout rolling and threshing in the fast shallow water 40 feet down stream from him alongside one of the foaming boulders.
I leaned my rod against the car, seized my landing net and skidded down the bank.
It is hard to any which is the more delightful experience in trout-fishing: to catch a trout yourself, or to sit in a grandstand seat on the river bank and watch a friend catch one.
At first thought, you are inclined to favor catching the trout yourself. There are not many experiences in life to equal it. But they are impossible to remember. You are too excited to remember. In my lifetime, I have caught more than my share of trout. But when I try to recapture the picture in memory of any of the greatest fights, the picture eludes me. It begins, all right, with me at the business end of the rod. But almost imperceptibly, the moving picture of my memory begins to slip and fade; and it is my wife or Jim or old Skipper Howard I see in memory, making one of the epic captures I have witnessed.
The First For 1946
Jim stood with feet braced, his rod arched high, his left hand drawing in line as the trout gave ground. You don’t wind your reel while fighting a trout with a fly rod. You draw the line in and give it out, the slack falling into the boiling water at your feet. The trout was a 16-incher – a good pound and a half. With the current helping it, it would take runs down stream that almost stripped off the 90 feet of line Jim had on his reel. Then it would rest; and Jim, with arched rod, would persuade it up through eddies and slack stretches.
But in the end, the trout’s greatest advantage, the swift current, becomes its deadly enemy.
I saw its orange-edged white belly flash more often, as it rolled in the slashing current. Finally, Jim was able to draw it a good 30 feet without much resistance. And in another minute, he had it within 20 feet of him. I waded into a quiet spot. Jim led it skilfully over towards me. I sank the landing net in the pool. Jim drew the trout over the net. I lifted.
And there was trout Number One for 1946 – pound and a half, sleek, fat, lithe, brightly colored, it’s tiny red spots margined with iridescent blue, its white snow-white, its orange margins smoked with black. Surely the most beautiful animal on earth.
I left Jim with his prize and clambered up the bank to get my tackle organized. In an instant I, too, was in the stream; and, working pretty well side by side, we fished that 300-yard rapids for two solid hours.
At this early season of the year, the trout are not as wary as they become later, when the water falls low and clear. After their long winter fast, the trout are hungry and on the make. The water is rough and not too clear. Anything attractive in the tumbling water is likely to induce even an adult trout to make a strike. They inhabit the wildest water, partly to capture the Insects and minnows washed down in the current, partly also because those small creatures are helpless and easy prey in the broken water. But I think a good-sired trout likes to glory in his strength in that swift current. What an ordeal of strength it must be for a trout to maintain his position in that bullet-fast water, full of a thousand twists and turns of current. Not for an instant can the trout relax his muscular effort. If he did, he would be swept down stream a hundred yards in a few seconds. Yet, hour after hour, a big trout will rise and slash at his feed in one raging area few feet square.
In two hours, Jim had seven trout, the best one the first one, the 16-incher, I had five, one of them almost the mate to Jim’s.
But to make up for my failure to beat him, I had at least LOST the biggest one. And Jim had been right there to see it. As we waded down, level with each other, I had cast a long throw into a black eddy beside one of the big boulders. The fly had dragged through one of those little foam puddings. Something half the size of a cocker spaniel had humped up. I struck to set the hook. The small pool exploded. Up in the air leaped a dark, glistening trout of at least two pounds. It went around the boulder. And my line and leader, minus fly, sprang back through the air.
If you can’t CATCH the biggest trout – at least LOSE the biggest!
“Let’s break off, Jim,” I said, as I waded ashore to put on a fresh streamer fly. “How about some sandwiches?”
So Jim wound up his line and came ashore, too, and sat down on the rocks beside me.
He emptied his creel on to a flat stone and lined his seven beautiful trout out, according to seniority. I handed him my creel; and the 12 made a beautiful display.
“After lunch,” I stated, “we’ll fish the rapids half a mile below here and catch another dozen.”
“We’ll eat six for supper tonight at the hotel,” decreed Jim, leaning down on his elbow to sniff the sweet, strange smell of trout.
“Tomorrow,” I outlined, “we’ll fish these same two stretches of the stream. I don’t think we can do any better anywhere in Ontario.”
“I wonder,” sighed Jim, as I busied myself with my fly box, “I wonder how many years these same rapids have produced trout for anglers?”
A Bit of History
“Well, Jim,” I informed him, “I’ve got an old book at home called the ‘Sportsman’s Gazetteer’ by Charles Hallock, an American. It was published in 1877 – that’s 70 years ago. At the back of the book, he gives details and routes of where to go fishing all over America, including Canada. And in the Ontario section, he mentions and describes this very river. Hallock probably shed this very rapids.”
“Seventy years isn’t so much,” suggested Jim.
“But Muskoka was by then,” I cried, “a thoroughly opened up and exploited tourist region. Hallock speaks of Muskoka as a most popular sportsman’s region. He describes what he calls the Northern Lakes. Simcoe, Cochochong – that’s the way he spelled Couchiching – Muskoka and Rosseau. He gives the routes for getting there by train and boat and gives the names of the sporting good dealers and outfitters in Gravenhurst and Bracebridge.”
“We’ve been hoicking trout of here,” mused Jim, “a long time.”
“Hallock,” I said, “speaks of fishing the Nipigon. He describes how to get there and he calls Port Arthur ‘Prince Arthur’s Landing.'”
“The Nipigon!” cried Jim. Do you mean to say the Americans were going to the Nipigon in 1877! Why, I haven’t been there yet.”
“Aw, listen,” I protested. “I’ve got another old book at home by Charles Lanman, the private secretary of Daniel Webster. In 1842, a hundred and four years ago, Lanman made a tour of Lake Superior in a birch bark canoe and fished the Nipigon and wrote it up just about the way the railway tourist departments write it up today.”
“That,” said Jim, “sort of takes away from the adventure of being here. I hate to think of a whole century of sportsmen fishing this stream ahead of me. I like to feel like an adventurer…”
“Well, I like to marvel,” I submitted, “at the eternal bounty of wild nature. To think of this Muskoka river giving us a catch of trout like that…”
And we both centred our gaze on the broad white stone on which reposed, in artistic array, our 12 beautiful trout.
“I hear,” said Jim, “that the tourist invasion of Canada this season is going to be the biggest ever.”
“Canada, in pre-war years,” I advised, “used to average $300,000,000 a year from the American tourists. This year, I hear they expect $500,000,000.”
“That’s a lot of dough,” murmured Jim.
“Why,” I exclaimed, “it’s possibly our richest industry. I mean, it brings in all that cash. The cash is left here. And nothing is taken out of the country but a few snapshots!”
“And a few fish,” corrected Jim, lovingly smiling at the trout.
“The Yanks,” I pursued, “bring in $500,000,000 cash. They leave it here. Unlike the manufacturing industry, or the agricultural industry, nothing leaves the country. That is nothing of importance.”
“But,” pointed out Jim, “a lot of fish leave the water – for keeps!”
“Mmmmmm,” I mmmed.
“If $500,000,000 worth of Americans come up here this summer,” demanded Jim, “how much are the fish worth that these Americans take out of our waters?”
“They don’t all fish,” I pointed out.
“Okay, then say $250,000,000 worth of them do,” proposed Jimmie. “Now, what does that make our fish worth – to us?”
I looked at the white stone with the 12 trout.
“Would the Americans come up here,” demanded Jim, if we ran out of fish? Suppose we fished so hard ourselves and let the Americans fish so hard that we all got ahead of the fish and ran out of them?”
“Do you think that’s possible?” I asked, “when this one little river, described by Hallock 70 years ago, can still produce for us a catch like this?”
“Well, I think we Canadians should all worry about it,” submitted Jim.
“Nature is to prolific,” I assured him. “Nature can stage such a wonderful come back. I bet if an atomic bomb were to eliminate the human race at one fell swoop, nature would have this country back on a paying basis as far as nature is concerned – in 10 years. Boy, what a trout stream this would be in 10 years, if we could only eliminate the human factor!”
“That’s an idea,” breathed Jim slyly, again feasting his eyes on our trout.
“Here we are,” I expounded, “seated beside a beautiful trout stream. It has yielded us a lovely catch, despite all the years it has been fished. A few yards away, up the hill there, is our motor car, in which we can travel, almost as swift as thought, from the great city to this paradise. True, the wild creatures have mostly gone. The deer are gone. The ruffed grouse, the beaver, the otter. All the original Inhabitants of this country have been subdued and driven off by mankind. But what we want- the trout – are still here.”
“What lords of creation we humans are!” cried Jim.
A Trick of Nature
“The earth, and the fulness thereof, is ours!” I quoted. “We have learned how to rid the world of the things we don’t want, and to keep and maintain the things we do want. I think Canada’s $500,000,000 a year tourist business is safe. If the worst comes to the worst, we have learned how to grow fish in hatcheries. If, by any chance, we let too many tourists into the country, why, all we’ve got to do is spend a few millions of that annual $500,000,000 on new hatcheries, grow trout by the billion, pour them back into the streams, and there we are! Good for $500,000,000 a year indefinitely …!”
Jim gazed out over the lovely leaping water. He gazed at the trout on the stone.
“I don’t know,” he reflected slowly, “sometimes I think nature is bigger and more astonishing than we imagine. I think nature can and will play tricks on us that we don’t know she has in her bag of tricks. Just about the time we think we’ve got nature eating out of our hands, boom, she will…”
We both heard a loud report. Above the roar of the stream, it sounded like a shot. Up the hill. We both harked.
And, above the swish and rear of the stream, we heard another loud bang.
“Jim,” I scrambled to my feet, “that’s up by the car!”
“Hey!” cried Jim.
So we hastily gathered our gear and scrambled up the bank and along the bush road to the little car.
“What scoundrel…” I roared, “would do a thing like that!” Both our front tires were burst!
Both our beautiful new synthetic tires were not only flat, they had large holes ripped out of them.
I got down and examined them.
“Why, Jim,” I shouted, straightening up and looking angrily up and down the road and into the brush, “somebody has deliberately torn these tires… they’re chewed …”
Something stirred in the trees and we both looked up startled.
There sat two porcupines in neighboring trees, gazing down at us in that shoe-button, sap-headed, smirky expression porcupines use.
They looked pleased and a little startled.
“Jim,” I gasped, “the porkies chewed our tires …”
“What a depraved taste,” said Jim, reaching for a rock.
“But…but …” I cried outraged, “we’re miles from any help!”
Jim shook the trees and the porkies climbed as high as they could and then fell out and scuffled away into the underbrush.
“Imagine porkies,” I raged, “chewing tires…”
“Porkies,” said Jim, “will try anything once. Axe handles, privy seats, cardboard cartons, anything. I suppose these two porkies were a committee designated by the tribe to investigate the eating properties of our latest addition to Man’s conveniences.”
“Maybe it was the salt, off that dusty piece of road back near Bracebridge,” I suggested. “The highway department puts salt on the dusty roads…”
“Well…” smiled Jim, far away. “I was just saying nature has a few tricks up her sleeve…”
Now, it’s not easy to leave a touring car alone on a lonely bush road. You can’t lock it up. We had to cache all our tackle and other valuables in the woods, hoping the porkies wouldn’t find them and chew them up. Then we started to walk the six miles back to the nearest farm on the bush road.
There was nobody home at the farm but a couple of fierce dogs. We had to walk another two miles. We got the nearest village service station on the phone to try and get us two new tires. They said they would do their best as soon as they could leave the gasoline pump, which was very busy today. Maybe towards evening.
“You can contribute the cost of the two new tires,” explained Jim, “towards that $500,000,000 tourist income.”
So we walked the eight miles back, arriving late in the afternoon. And we fished the same rapids over again, with only three small trout that we threw back.
“I guess we’ve cleaned them out for the next 70 years,” said Jim, very gloomy.
And it grew cooler. And we went and sat in the car for fear of porkies eating our other tires. And the relief party arrived about an hour after dark.
Editor’s Notes: I actually have a colour image of this illustration, as seen at the top of the page. Most images were in colour after 1935, but my primary source (microfilm) does not show this. The microfilmed version is shown at the end.
Greg loved fly fishing, as can be seen in his descriptions in this story. He and Jim seem a little unconcerned about disappearing nature, but I suspect that is likely not true. Sportsmen (hunters and fishers) like them were some of the first conservationists as they realized that their sporting activities could not continue if all of the animals were killed or all of the fish caught. This brought about some of the first conservation organizations, like Ducks Unlimited.
By Greg Clark, December 21, 1946
“How,” demanded Jimmie Frise,”is your Christmas spirit?”
“As good as the next fellow’s,” I replied guardedly.
“I mean,” expanded Jim,” “have you got the true spirit of Christmas? Or are you just one of those people who go along on the Christmas bandwagon because they can’t escape?”
“Jim!” I expostulated very shocked. “You shouldn’t say things like that. To vast numbers of people, Christmas is the most holy day of the year.”
“It certainly doesn’t look like it,” declared Jim. “It’s far from holy for what looks to me like about 99 per cent of the population. It’s the business peak of the year. More cash registers clang during the four weeks before Christmas than during any other four-month period of the year. More people are exhausted as the result of sheer acquisitiveness on Christmas Eve than on any other day of the year.”
“I know, I know,” I protested. “Anybody can see that we have made a carnival out of Christmas instead of a holiday. Holiday means holy day. But how else would you celebrate Christmas?”
“Well, millions among us DO regard Christmas as the most sacred day of the year, and act accordingly,” said Jimmie. “But millions more of us can’t hear the church bells because of the racket the kids are making in the living-room or because of the hustle and bustle in the kitchen while the turkey cooks….”
“I think,” I submitted, “that the great majority of those of us who look upon Christmas as a carnival rather than a holy day still have a consciousness deep in our hearts as to what it is all about. All this giving of gifts. All this gathering of the family all this feasting and merrymaking.”
“I doubt it,” muttered Jim.
“Look here,” I demanded, “what are you getting at? What is all this leading up to?”
“Well,” said Jim, in that sweet humble air he adopts when he is about to take us both for a ride, “as a matter of fact, I was just wondering if the good old Christmas spirit had affected you to the point that you might be willing to make a small sacrifice…”
“Of time?” I queried. “Or money?”
“Neither, really.” Assured Jim. “One of my nephews from the country – just a kid, he is – got the bright idea this Christmas of making a little money by selling Christmas trees off the farm. They’ve got a big swamp full of spruce and balsam, you remember?”
“That’s a good swamp,” I agreed. “Full of rabbits.”
“So,” went on Jim, “he came up to the city and rented a vacant lot, he and a couple of chums. And they’ve cut about 300 dandy little Christmas trees, and have brought them up by truck to this vacant lot. And these past three days, they’ve been selling like hot cakes.”
“Good for them,” I applauded. “I like to see the farm boys exhibiting a little initiative.”
“A Swell Idea!”
“Now here’s the point,” pursued Jim. “They had no idea business would be so brisk. So they want to go back down to the farm tonight and spend tomorrow cutting another couple of hundred Christmas trees. And my nephew asked me if I would be kind enough to stand guard at their vacant lot tomorrow.”
“Why, Jim,” I admired, “what a swell idea!”
“All we’d have to do,” hurried Jim, watching me narrowly, “would be to get on the job good and early and…”
“How early?” I cut in.
“Oh, 8 or 8.30,” supposed Jim. “Maybe even later. Nobody goes out buying Christmas trees first thing in the morning.”
“How about during the night?” I demanded. “Don’t they have to leave somebody on guard during the night? Isn’t there some danger of kids coming around during the night and snitching a few trees?”
“Aw, we could stroll around a couple of times before bed time,” said Jim. “And anyway, there will be a cop on the beat.”
“Jim,” I submitted warmly, “there is something about Christmas trees that appeals to everybody no matter how cold-hearted he may be. I never pass one of those vacant lots crammed with little spruces and balsams, brightening the drab streets of the city with their unexpected little forests, that I don’t slow down and envy the guys who are living there, even for a few hours or a few days, amid the charm and mystery of the woods, there in the heart of the city.”
“It’s the Christmas spirit,” enthused Jim, obviously relieved at my reception of his idea.
“Has your nephew got one of those little shacks on the vacant lot?” I inquired. “You know, a little shelter to…”
“Not yet,” explained Jim. “They’ve got a good big brazier we can sit at. It won’t be cold. They’re going to bring planks for a little shack when they come back with more trees tomorrow night.”
“Aw, well, it’s just for the one day,” I reasoned. “Jim, I think it’s a sweet idea. I’ll be very glad to help out your young nephew. Is it the one we met last winter, rabbit hunting?”
“The same boy,” assured Jim.
“A fine kid,” I said heartily. “I’m glad to see he’s got some get-up-and-go to him. When do they leave for the farm?”
“They’ve left already,” announced Jim. “I just got a telephone call to say they were leaving and asking if we could go out right away.”
“Jim,” I cried, “let’s go!”
On the Job
Personally, I have always envied shopkeepers, especially hardware store keepers and drug store keepers. Those are happy men. There they stand amid their mysterious treasure all heaped about them. Mysterious drawers, secret bins; and all about them piled up and heaped high, the riches of their merchandise. I pity all those who have to stand behind counters and dish out groceries and drygoods. Everything they’ve got is out in the open. The customer can see for himself. But in a hardware store or a drug store, there is a sense of the unknown, the hidden. Every request from a customer is a challenge. And you can see in the eye of the hardware man, for instance, that gleam as his mind darts across the past, his memory exploring, as he accepts the challenge and goes to work to find the thing requested. I am sorry no hardware man or druggist has ever encountered an emergency that required my assistance. Christmas trees, of course, come in the category of groceries or drygoods.
Jimmie and I drove hotly for the residential shopping street where young Lisha, his nephew, had rented the vacant lot. And when we parked in front of it, our hearts rose.
There was still a goodly supply of Christmas trees on hand, though you could see that a large number had been sold. Already half a dozen customers were standing or moving amid the trees, examining them and looking about impatiently for somebody to serve them. In the midst stood a good big brazier newly heaped with coke and sticks, and radiating heat waves on the frosty air.
We hurried to the job.
Each tree had a small price tag tied to it. Some were a mere 75 cents, most of them a dollar, with here and there a particularly choice specimen at $1.50. After a hasty look around, I realized that Jim’s nephew, young Lisha, had inherited some of the artistic sense his uncle had. The $1.50 trees were pure Christmas card types.
“Madame?” I greeted the first lady, who had a couple of kids with her.
“How much is this tree?” she inquired sharply.
I examined the tag, which was in full view. “That’s $1.50,” I informed her.
“A dollar fifty,” she cried shrilly, “for a little old tree? Why, that’s an outrage. Anybody could go and out down a simple little tree.”
“But look, lady,” I explained sweetly, in the best merchandising tradition, it had to be cut. It had to be brought in a truck from the country. This vacant lot had to be rented…”
“Oh,” she said. “So you want to argue, do you? Well, there’s lots of other Christmas trees around this district…”
And she marched out of the lot, her two kids glaring back at me indignantly.
I saw the two ladies Jim had first approached just leaving him with their shoulders squared.
The next lady I approached had a tree in her possession. She was dragging it out toward the brazier with the air of someone who had found a bargain hidden away at the back.
“This one,” she stated firmly, “has no price tag. How much is it?”
I examined the tree. It was a little beauty. A close-packed, dense spruce, its branches standing out briskly in all directions, its top tapered and gay and light is a feather. Obviously a $1.50 type.
“That’s the $1.50 line, lady,” I announced.
“For a little bit of scrub like that!” she snapped. “Scrub that you could pick up along the roadside…”
“Sorry, madam,” I assured her. That’s a very exceptional Christmas tree…”
“It was a way in at the back, there,” she wheedled. “Among the 50-cent ones.”
I went back in among the trees. I looked on the ground. Sure enough, I found it. A price tag, folded up as though some bargain hunting woman had pinched it off the tree. I opened it. It was $1.50.
But maybe the wind blew it off. I shouldn’t be so suspicious.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I stood firm, “that’s our $1.50 line.”
“It’s an outrage,” she shrilled. “The government ought to forbid this racket. “It’s just a racket. A little bit of scrub like this, a dollar fifty!”
I said nothing. I looked over and saw Jim standing by the brazier warming his hands. His customers had departed.
“Look,” said the lady, changing her attitude.” Couldn’t you let me have this for a dollar? I’m just a poor widow. And my little children do so look forward to a Christmas tree…”
“Just the Salesman”
She didn’t look like a widow to me. She looked like a woman regularly accustomed to bulldozing and wheedling a man by turns.
“I’m just the salesman, lady,” I stated. “The price is a dollar fifty.”
“Do you deliver for that price?” she asked stiffly.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “F.O.B.”
“What does F.O.B. mean?” she snapped.
“It’s French for ‘you got to carry it,'” I explained.
“You keep it,” she said warningly, searching her purse. “My husband will call for it. after supper.”
She paid me the $1.50 and I wrote her name on a piece of paper and tied it prominently to the fine feathery tip of the tree.
Jim had dragged a box up to the brazier and was hunched over the fire.
“It’s a cold job, just standing around,” he sniffled.
“Make any sales?” I inquired.
“No, mine were all just shopping around,” he coughed.
The late afternoon sun had gone down behind the nearby buildings. The December wind eddied around us, wafting the scent of balsam and spruce and the fumes of the homegoing traffic to our crispy nostrils.
A few people paused in passing and looked in at our display, but thought better of it and hurried homeward.
“How late should we stay?” I inquired, from the lee side of the brazier.
“Well, I suppose,” huffed Jim, “we ought to stay until the stores close and the crowds go home.”
A man and wife turned purposefully into our lot, the lady leading.
As I was on my feet, I leaped to the sale.
“Aha, the old racket,” cried the husband jovially, full of the Santa Claus spirit. “How much are the trees? Thirty-five, fifty?”
“Are these all you’ve got?” asked the lady in a quiet, menacing voice.
“Just what you see,” I assured her politely.
“They look awfully skimpy to me,” she said, leaning back. “When I was a girl, Christmas trees were beautiful.”
“We have several varieties,” I explained, “spruce, balsam, but the spruce are the prettiest.”
She walked stiffly around. Her husband joined Jim at the brazier and they engaged in the hearty kind of conversation a city man uses on what he assumes to be a country man.
“This one,” I said, pulling a nice bunchy spruce out of the pile,” is the $1.50 line. These are special…”
“A dollar fifty!” laughed the lady lightly. “I should say it IS special! That’s nonsense. I wouldn’t pay more than 50 cents for any Christmas tree. Why it’s absurd, a dollar fifty … George!”
A Cold World
Her husband came over smartly.
“This man,” she said, “has the nerve to ask a dollar fifty for this Christmas tree. Speak to him.”
George drew himself up and frowned at me.
“A dollar fifty,” he began slowly and loudly.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t own the trees. I am just a salesman. There are plenty more Christmas trees up the street.”
“Tell him who you are, George!” commanded the lady in a low voice.
“I don’t care who you are,” I said loudly. “The price of this tree is a dollar-fifty.”
“That’s the tree I want,” said the lady loudly too. “Give him 50 cents for it, George, and take it.”
George looked critically at the tree.
“Mabel,” he said, “that isn’t a Christmas tree. That’s just a piece of hedge. I want a Christmas tree that sort of…”
“We’ve been over and over that,” cried the lady angrily, “every Christmas for years.”
“I want a Christmas tree,” shouted George, “that you can see through. I want a filmy, sketchy Christmas tree, not one of these thick, stuffed looking…”
“Take this one!” warned the lady in a deep throaty voice.
George looked desperately around and laid hold of one of our 50-cent line, a poor little wispy, droopy balsam.
That’s a Christmas tree!” he grated, shoving his jaw close to his wife’s face. “That’s what WE had for a Christmas tree in MY home…”
The lady grabbed a branch and tried to snatch the tree from him.
They pulled and yanked and yelled at each other.
The lady suddenly let go and ran, stumbling out of the lot, and with fast-tapping feet turned into the home-going crowd along the street.
“Will you take it, sir?” I inquired politely.
He stood for a moment, then flung the little tree away from him.
“Aw, the heck with it!” he barked and strode out.
Jim hadn’t moved from the brazier.
“Jim,” I said, “how long should we stay here?”
“It’s pretty cold,” suggested Jim.
“It’s a cold world,” I agreed.
So we banked ashes on the brazier and put it in a safe place and went home, trusting to the goodness of heart and the Christmas spirit in everybody not to molest young Lisha’s trees.
And after supper, we went and bribed the old boy who cuts our grass in summer to take on the job for the morrow.
Editor’s Notes: $1.50 in 1946 is about $21.25 in 2019.
F.O.B. is a term that basically means that the seller is not responsible for shipping.
By Greg Clark, August 10, 1946
“I feel,” said Jimmie Frise, “a little peaked.” (He pronounced it peakid.)
“What does peaked mean, Jim?” I inquired solicitously,
“Well, kind of …” muttered Jim. “… kind of … peaked. There isn’t any other way of expressing it.”
“I know it’s an old-fashioned word, Jim,” I admitted “My own grandmother always used it. She used to say we looked peaked and gave us senna tea or liquorice powders. But I’d like to know how you feel when you feel peaked.”
“Well,” explained Jimmie earnestly, “you feel sort of … uh … peaked, like.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That clears it all up.”
“You feel,” said Jim, “sort of limp and off your feed. You feel kind of sickish but not sick.”
“Aw, Jim,” I soothed, “it’s just the heat. It’s the food we’re eating these summer days with our families away. It’s our age. When you get to be 50, you’ve got to expect to feel a little woozy now and then. A man, after all, is just a mechanism. All mechanisms get out of order as time goes by and wear and tear make themselves felt.”
“I suppose,” agreed Jim wanly.
“You take a watch or a clock,” I pursued. “You don’t expect a clock or a watch, even an expensive watch, to be guaranteed for life. You have to take it in to be overhauled every now and then. Sometimes, it gets a jolt and you have to get a new mainspring in it. But mostly, it just gets clogged up and needs cleaning and oiling.”
“I don’t suppose,” sighed Jim, “there ever was a man guaranteed for life.”
“No, sir,” I agreed. “No man is guaranteed for life. He starts to wear out in his late 30s. In his 40s, he can actually feel the works starting to squeak. And now, in his 50s, a man is entitled to feel that the guarantee was only for about 30 years at the most.”
“Don’t you ever feel peaked?” asked Jim wistfully.
“I can’t say I do,” I submitted. “The way I do, Jim, is to treat my machinery to what is called the surprise system. I remember, when I was a small boy, suddenly feeling sorry for my feet. I looked at my feet one night after I had got ready for bed, and I had a sudden flood of sympathy for them. Poor feet! Locked up all days in socks and boots. Stuck down all night at the very darkest bottom end of the bedclothes. Poor pallid feet! And I felt sorry for them in a detached sort of way, as if they were creatures apart from me.”
“Hmmm, that’s an interesting thought,” admitted Jim.
“So,” I went on, “in early boyhood I began giving my feet the odd treat. For example, in church – our church was a very dim Presbyterian church in the Byzantine style – I used to slip my shoes off and let my feet twiddle secretly down in the privacy found underneath a pew. I went barefoot every chance I got. I didn’t particularly enjoy going barefoot. But I was happy in giving my feet a little holiday from their dismal prison, year in, year out.”
“Well, what’s this got to do,” asked Jim listlessly, “with feeling peaked?”
” A few years later,” I said, “after I had discovered my feet, I discovered my stomach. We were having a big dinner. There was cauliflower, parsnips, roast duck and a whole lot of other things I hated.”
“Duck! Ugh!” groaned Jim.
“But in my youth,” I explained, there was no question about whether you liked your food. You just ate what was put on your plate, or else! So I sat there, hating my food and feeling sorry for myself, when all of a sudden I thought of my poor stomach. I visualized it. If I was suffering, what of my poor stomach! There it was down in the middle of me, doomed for life to the dark and the humid warmth. Never could it come out, like my feet, for a breath of air or sunlight. Doomed my poor stomach, to squatting down in the middle of me to receive whatever I chucked at it. Helpless, hopeless, in the dark.”
Jim shuddered slightly.
“And I was filled,” I expounded, “with a sudden, warm, kindly feeling for my stomach. I decided then and there that I would befriend it at every opportunity. I would give it surprises. I would treat it to little excursions. And that very night, at the supper table, I surreptitiously took a dessert spoonful of my grandmother’s Wooster sauce and downed it when nobody was looking. You could feel my stomach cheer!”
“Didn’t it kill you?” asked Jim weakly.
“Kill me?” I cried. “My dear boy, that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between me and my stomach. I have never failed, all across the years, to give it a surprise at every opportunity. When it thinks it is going to get a load of the same old junk, the same old mashed potatoes, the same old overdone beef and the same old apple pie, what do I do?”
“Don’t tell me, groaned Jim.
“I give it,” I announced, “an onion sandwich.”
“Onion …” quivered Jim.
“A strong onion sandwich, with peppergrass or parsley thickly padded on top of the onion, a good slather of pepper, some salt and a dab of vinegar.”
“You should have dyspepsia,” asserted Jim thickly.
“Never,” I assured. “My stomach knows I am playing. It knows we are having fun. I give it the surprise treatment. I go along the street at lunch time, thinking about fried steak, home-fried potatoes, ice cream and chocolate sauce, until my poor old stomach has all collapsed with foreboding, and is lying in limp glob down in the middle of me. Then, all of a sudden, I whip into a lunch counter and send down to it fruit salad, a slice of toast and … by golly… a large glass of buttermilk. …”
“Awghh!” begged Jimmie, holding up his hands in horror and beseeching me to stop.
“I never feel peaked,” I stated finally. Because, in my opinion, feeling peaked is simply from treating your stomach as if it were just … just a receptacle.”
“I’ve heard a lot of cockeyed health ideas,” said Jim, “but that is the worst. The surprise system!”
“The secret of health,” I declaimed, “is In treating every part of your mechanism with decent consideration. Give it a surprise every once in a while. Shock it. Wake it up. Make it feel it’s a member of the community of you, not just a dumb, blind slave.”
Surprise Your Liver
Jim stared down the garden.
“My liver,” he said thoughtfully. “Now, how could I surprise my liver?”
“Simplest thing in the world, Jim,” I assured. “Get down and walk around the garden four or five times every night on all fours.”
“On all what?” protested Jim.
“Look, my dear sir,” I reasoned, “it’s only in the last couple of million years that we human beings have been walking erect. Don’t forget that for the preceding billion years we were slowly emerging from the ancient slime, we humans, and, like most other animals except birds, went on all fours. Our architecture is that of a four-footed animal. All our innards are arranged, not for walking upright, but for walking on all fours. The way our hearts are placed, our lungs, livers, stomachs everything is arranged as in a four-footed beast. I bet for the first couple of hundred thousand years that men adopted the fashion of trying to walk upright, there were an awful lot of peaked-feeling people.”
“You mean,” cried Jim, “that I should get down on my hands and knees and perambulate around the garden…?”
“Certainly,” I said. “Why not? It would give all your insides surprise. Not only your liver, but all the rest of the handiworks. Imagine! I bet none of your ancestors, for the past 10,000 years, has ever gone around on all fours. So you can imagine the sigh of relief your liver and lights would give if you started walking around in the old-fashioned manner.”
“The old-fashioned …” snorted Jim.
“Certainly, the old-fashioned manner,” I said, rising, walking over to the grass (which Jim hadn’t cut lately) and getting down on my hands and knees.
I walked about 10 yards on hands and knees. It did feel good. The grass was spring under my palms. It smelt good. I looked down and saw ants in the grass and interesting small plants hidden in the roughage. I stood up, stretched and walked back and sat down.
“Aaaaahh,” I said with satisfaction. “That feels good! I feel as good as a dog feels when it gives that big, long stretch after having a sleep.”
Jim glanced around to the left and right to see if any of his neighbors were about. He contemplated the lawn before him with an expression of doubt and worry on his face. Then he got up, walked over and got down on all fours and went about 10 feet. Then got hurriedly to his feet and came and sat down again.
“It feels ridiculous,” he snapped. “It feels demeaning, humiliating.”
“But doesn’t your liver feel better?” I inquired, “Sort of surprised?”
Jim sat up and listened.
“As a matter of fact,” he replied, “it does.”
And he got up and went over to the grass again and started crawling around on his hands and knees. He made a complete circuit of the garden plodding like a cow coming home at eventide.
“Do you know,” he stated, as he sat down again, “I believe you’ve got something there. I could sort of feel my insides moving around freely, as if they were taking up easier and more natural positions.”
“Jim,” I enunciated, “in deference to our remote ancestors, I think everybody should go around on their hands and knees for one hour after supper every day.”
“It could be a new cult, like nudism,” agreed Jim. “Wherever you looked, after supper, you’d see your neighbors crawling around their gardens, up their back steps, out to their cars. After a few months, it would be no shock at all to see a neighbor going down to the corner to post a letter on his hands and knees, with the letter held in his mouth.”
“Nobody feels better,” I furthered, “than when lying down. Think what a relief it is to lie down. Think how eased and delighted the whole body feels. The reason is simple. When we lie down, we permit our insides, which have been held up all day in a most unnatural position, to resume their proper or normal position.”
“All healthy, natural men,” agreed Jim, “love to lie back in their chairs and put their feet on the desk. That is the same thing. Taking the weight off the insides.”
“We’ve got something here, Jim,” I announced.
“Let’s go another round,” suggested Jim alertly.
So we got up and did another round of the garden, taking our time, placing our front paws and hind knees very solidly and deliberately, the way a horse or a cow does.
And just as we finished the first round. Jim suddenly jumped to his feet with low “Oh, oh!” to me.
He went and sat down.
I looked around and saw the cause of his perturbation. The neighbors in the next garden were standing watching us with expressions of astonishment and some disapproval.
Bless the Car Keys
As I, to, took my seat in the garden chair, I heard the woman say: “Why can’t they leave it alone? With their wives away, I suppose they feel they can go on the tear…”
So we both got up and strolled across to the fence and chatted amiably with them. We can’t have any unfounded rumors going about the neighborhood. We showed them that we were perfectly sober and under control.
They made no reference to our parade around the garden, and we offered no explanations. We both thought it was better than trying to explain any new health scheme. We talked of the dahlias and the asters and the other oncoming flowers of August. And then I remembered I had left the hose running back at my place.
“Jim, I’ll have to go and turn off my hose,” I said.
I went out to my car and got in. I felt in my pocket, my usual pocket, for my car key. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t in any pocket. I searched thoroughly and then realized what had happened. I had lost my car key in Jim’s unkempt grass while on all fours.
Jim was still chattering with the neighbors when I returned to the garden.
I sidled up to him and asked in a low voice: “Feel better?
“Much better,” replied Jim quietly. “Certainly surprised my liver. Or something.”
“I’ve lost my car key,” I told him. “It must have fallen out of my pocket. Would you like to help me look for it in the grass . . . ?”
Jim looked at me with delight. Then he turned to his neighbors.
“Mr. Clark,” he said, as though just recollecting, “has lost his car key in the grass. We’ve got to continue looking for it…”
And down we went crawling in the grass to our heart’s content, while the neighbors, everything now perfectly clear to them, watched us with amusement as we continued our search.
Jim found the key after only about 30 seconds of hunting. He passed me and showed it to me in the palm of his hand, but we both went right on hunting for it, this way, that way, until our livers were thoroughly surprised, our insides were properly shaken free from their unnatural upright position, and we felt we had had enough.
Then Jim cried that he had found the key, up we got, and I went home and turned off my hose.
But the moral is: If you want to surprise your liver and don’t feel like scandalizing the neighbors, just to your car key out on the lawn and then go looking for it.
In fact, the whole family could come and help. Much to everybody’s improvement.
Editor’s Notes: Senna tea is a herb used as a laxative.
Licorice powder was used for stomach pains.
By Greg Clark, January 19, 1946
“We never should have come,” declared Jimmie Frise, surveying the bleak January fields.
“Mid-January,” I asserted, “is the best jack rabbit month of all. The snow forces them down into the creek bottoms. You can jump them more easily, and see them better.”
“But where are they?” protested Jim. “We’ve walked three creek beds; I bet 10 miles! And never seen a jack.”
“This neighborhood has probably been shot over,” I suggested.
“Shot out,” corrected Jim. “As a matter of fact, I don’t recollect having seen a living thing in the past four hours. Not a chickadee, even.”
“Around all big cities,” I submitted, as we walked down the slushy country sideroad towards our car, “there is a sort of belt of desolation. It is neither rural nor suburban. It is too far out from the city to be developed as a suburb. But too expensive, because of real estate speculators, to be farmed as an ordinary farm. We’re probably in the middle of this belt of desolation right now.”
“Market gardeners,” said Jim, “could reap a fortune, this close to a city.”
“The soil out here.” I pointed out, “isn’t market garden soil. These used to be good general purpose farms. But as the city drew nearer, year by year, the owners of the farms began to get itchy. Instead of thinking about farming. they began thinking about how much their farm was worth. A farmer should never waste time speculating over such things. He should devote himself to proving how much his farm is worth by how much it produces.”
“You’re quite an economist,” admired Jimmie. “Did you ever live on a farm?”
“All my ancestors did,” I explained. “Nobody knows more about farming than those who quit it.”
“Those who are still farming.” inquired Jim, “haven’t yet found out about it, or they wouldn’t be doing it, eh?”
“Precisely.” I agreed. “If farming was any good, how would we ever populate cities with hundreds of thousands of dopes working like fools for a risky wage and in eternal anxiety of losing their jobs?”
“That’s hardly a fair description of city people,” protested Jim.
“Oh, some city people are prosperous,” I admitted. “But their prosperity comes from living off all the dopes in cities, the ones who shouldn’t be in cities at all.”
“Why shouldn’t they be?” demanded Jim.
“Because they aren’t making the grade,” I explained. “Because they are living from hand to mouth. Because they are living in perpetual anxiety and frequent distress.”
“Where should they be?” inquired Jim.
“In towns, or better, in villages. I asserted. “Where living is cheaper, in all things; where people without much competition in their make-up can get along very happily on very small incomes.”
“You make me laugh,” declared Jim bitterly. “It’s the people without much competition in their make-up who can’t make the grade on farms and in villages, who come to the city in order to survive. In big cities, there are thousands of jobs. A man who is no good can take a job and lose it; take another job and lose it, and so on, year after year; always in and out of jobs. But the times he is in, he can make enough to just get by. Whereas, a guy that is no good, in a village would starve to death.”
“That’s an interesting angle on cities,” I confessed.
“Sure,” cried Jim. “Cities are the great gathering places of the cast-offs of the farms and villages. But, as you find gulls flying over schools of herring, so you find large numbers of smart people also in cities-smart people who live off the multitude, just the way gulls live off the herring schools.”
“A smart fellow,” I suggested, “isn’t smart enough to live off farmers and villagers?”
“Certainly not,” said Jim. “To get rich, you’ve got to go where large numbers of people are gathered. It is their money you get rich on. Money isn’t something you dig out of the ground. Money is something that changes hands. A rich man rarely gets rich by taking the riches off another rich man. He gets rich by taking the dimes, quarters, hall-dollars and dollars off very large numbers of very small people.”
“Foolish small people?” I inquired.
“Well, foolish enough to have left the farm and the village,” explained Jim.
We had parked our car in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse just off the country sideroad. As we walked up the farm lane in the slushy, bleak afternoon, we were both impressed by the forbidding aspect of the broken and desolate farm house. Its windows were all gaping, its doors gone. Broken rain barrels, relics of old and decrepit farm implements, lay about in the snow. Already, the ever-invading shrubbery, the advance guard of the bush, had taken root in the very dooryard of the farmhouse. In another 10 years, the bush would have reconquered this farm.
“It’s a melancholy spectacle,” I sighed.
“Probably four generations lived in that house,” surmised Jim, pausing. “This close to the city, I bet three of those generations really flourished. Probably the first generation used to cart their produce down to the village of York before it was Toronto. The next two generations no doubt were rich farmers, of the Victorian age, when all our farmer relations were our rich relations. Remember?”
“When I was a small kid,” I agreed, “the big excitement was to be invited out to visit our rich relatives on the farms. We had to put on our best face whenever our rich country relations honored us with a visit in the city.”
“That was the golden age of farming,” said Jim. “Then, about 1890 something silly happened. Maybe it was indoor plumbing. Maybe it was the invention of electricity. Maybe it was merely paved streets. But suddenly, something happened that made cities so fundamentally different from the country, that the inhabitants of the two spheres — the farm and the city — drew miles apart. Then cities began to double and treble and quadruple in size. All you have to do is drive through the country and look at the big farm houses. There isn’t a big NEW farmhouse in the whole country. All the big ones, the big red brick farmhouses with curly-cue wood work on the gables, were built before 1890. Our rich country relatives began to dwindle. …”
“I bet the last occupant of this house here,” I stated, “sold it out, not as a farm, but as potential city land. The city had come close enough that on winter nights you could see its dull glare in the sky. When that happened, the farmer could no longer keep his mind on cattle and barns, plowing and seeding. That glare in the sky troubled his sleep every night. He imagined he could hear the tramp of the million feet of cities. So instead of $4,000, some speculator offered him $6,000. And that was the end of another farm.”
Surrender to the City
“I think the glare of the city lights at night,” put in Jim, as we walked slowly towards the house, “upset more than the farmer. How about his kids? How can you keep young people happy on a farm with those lights illumining the sky almost overhead?”
“Look, Jim!” I exclaimed. “Birds!”
Several small birds flew from around the dilapidated barn to greet us.
“Pawff,” scoffed Jim. “They’re just house sparrows; squidgers.”
“The first city slickers to move in,” I remarked.
“They seem glad to see us,” mused Jim.
We walked around the house, looking in the broken windows, the gaping doorways.
“Jim,” I cried. “Those sparrows have given me an idea. They’ve got the right answer. As the farmers give up their farms, surrendering to the city, why shouldn’t city people, weary of the city, move into the abandoned farm?”
“Only rich city guys can afford suburban farms,” said Jim.
“I don’t mean showplaces,” I pursued. “I mean just plain farms. A farm the size of this one could be cut up into maybe 10 small 10 acre lots. It would be no trick to interest 10 city people, fed up with the eternal and unprofitable grind, to invest their small capital in buying this farm for $6,000, divided among them; and then each family a little bungalow, like these national housing bungalows…”
“This would be just a suburb?” said Jim.
“No, they could raise chickens,” I explained, “vegetables, market garden crops, berry crops, little specialized orchards. The Veterans Land Act is organizing things like this for ex-servicemen and women. Small holdings, they call them.”
“But the men would work in the city?” demanded Jim.
“It’s only an hour’s drive from the city.” I insisted. “Out of the 10 neighbors, two or three would own motor cars, for commuting. What’s the difference between riding three-quarters of an hour every night and morning in a stuffy street car between a suburb and your job, and riding one hour, most of it on country highways…?”
“Small holdings!” muttered Jim. “Say!”
“What the cities did to the country. 50 years ago,” I exulted, “employing indoor toilets, hot and cold running water, electricity, theatres and paved streets, the country can now do to the cities, using motor cars, highways, radio, and modern specialized production of garden crops.”
“A guy,” meditated Jimmie, “could make money, buying up abandoned farms in these desolation belts, dividing them into small holdings and building little bungalows…”
“Once the veterans show it can be done.” I answered, “some trust company will grab on to the idea.”
Jimmie walked around the wrecked house, and gazed craftily over the bleak fields, already high with the invading brush wood.
“In our gang,” he supposed, “who have we got that we could form a little community of ten? Skipper? He’d make a wonderful general factotum. He can repair anything. He can make harness, he’s an expert carpenter. Then there’s Bumpy. I bet he could run a greenhouse, for flowers. And Art: he could have vines. And Bill-goats. What would you specialize in?”
“I’d keep prize chickens,” I decided. “Game chickens. I’ve always wanted to keep game roosters, for the hackles, for tying my own trout flies…”
“There’s no profit,” cut in Jim coldly, “in game chickens.”
“What would you do with a small holding?” I asked.
“I’d have the back of the 10 acres all berry bushes.” declared Jim. “raspberry canes, red and black currants. Then, next towards the front of the lot, tomatoes, cabbages. celery beds. Next, some hen houses, enough for about 100 White Leghorns. And in a small, tidy stable, three Jerseys, that I could let out to pasture nearby…”
“A miniature mixed farm,” I applauded.
“I’d have my job in town,” announced Jim warmly, “my hours 10 to 4. I’d drive in and out with you or some other member of the small holding community. I’d have the pleasant evenings and early mornings tending my hens, my vegetables and berry bushes in season. I’d have my cows to milk. From them, I would have much of the fresh food we’d need, and a profit over the year, from milk, eggs and surplus crops, of a few hundred dollars…”
I listened to Jim’s rhapsody and gazed with him over the horrible spectacle of this desolate and ruined farm. It was one of those sloppy thawing days of January, slush, dribble and mud. I shivered.
“Cities,” boomed Jim, as though he were preaching a sermon, “have come to the end of their tether. The first thing the atomic age ushers in is the end of cities. No one is going to waste an atomic bomb on a small holding. It won’t be the suburbs of the world the atom busters of next year will aim at.”
The Atomic Bomb Says So
“A hundred things, in the past 50 years,” I admitted, “are in league to destroy cities. The motor car, the telephone, the highway, radio, all have combined to steal away some advantage of the city. Now comes the atomic bomb to make it foolish to live in cities.”
“The most powerful nation in the world today,” asserted Jim, “is the country with the most villages and the fewest cities. The atomic bomb says so.”
“Jim,” I asked, “as a farmer born, what do you think this old farm is worth?”
“Well, let’s see,” figured Jim. “The buildings aren’t worth anything. In fact, they’re a debit. They detract from the value of the land. If it’s 100 acres, I should think we could get it for about $3,000.”
Jim walked around the back, inspecting.
“There’s a lot of good stone,” he said. “She’s nice and rolling. There’s a good woodlot, fair in the middle. And here’s a well…”
We walked over and examined the well. The ancient pump had fallen askew and there were only a few old planks laid over the head of the well. Jim stepped up cautiously and looked into it.
“A dandy,” he cried. “Full up. That means there is a fine water level under the farm, plenty of irrigation where it is most needed — in the ground.”
I stopped closer and peeped down, too. Eight feet below, the water mirrored my face in the dark and forbidding depths.
“How deep would it be?” I asked, drawing back nervously.
“Hard to say,” said Jim. “Maybe 40 feet. It looks like a good deep well.”
“Would it be spring water?” I inquired. “Pure spring water?”
“Bound to be,” said Jimmie. “See the beautiful stone work on the lining of the well.”
I took another peep.
“See the…” said Jim. At which instant the plank on which I had set one foot suddenly collapsed as if it were made of peanut brittle; one end flew back from under my feet, and as I flung forward and down, Jim made a wild clutch and caught my muffler in his left hand.
“Hold on!” roared Jim.
“Youp…” I said; but then my wind was cut off.
I grabbed Jim’s wrist in a desperate and vain attempt to get some slack into the muffler. But this made Jim topple slightly towards the bottomless pit below me. He braced himself with his other arm. I waved my hands frantically, and envisioned my face slowly turning purple, then indigo.
“Wells Don’t Freeze”
“Greg,” I could hear Jim’s voice as though through a giant machine shop.
“Greg, I’ll have to let go! If I try to pull you up, I’ll slip in myself. If I hold on, I’ll strangle you. So, quick, I’ll let go and then find a pole or a plank …”
With my last fading consciousness, I waved my arms wildly in a gesture of agreement, of consent.
“Grab hold of the pump pipe,” were Jim’s last words.
With tears bursting his eyes, he let go.
Reluctantly, I am sure.
My feet had been suspended about a foot above the water. Between Jim’s arm, my scarf and my five feet three, we made nearly seven feet. When Jim let go. I felt my feet skid violently from under me. And then I found myself sitting in two inches of water. Under the water was ice. I pried my muffler loose, grabbed the rusty pipe, and let out a wild yell:
“Coming!” roared Jim, and the end of an old plank came shooting down the well. Then Jim’s agitated face appeared.
“It’s ice!” I said softly, for fear of breaking it.
“Ice?” gasped Jim.
“Ice, I don’t know how thick.” I whispered, cautiously clasping the plank with both arms, wrapping my arms around it in a slow, eternal sort of embrace.
“But it can’t be ice!” cried Jimmie.
I felt it softly. “It is ice.” I replied, getting to my knees but holding grimly to the plank.
“But wells don’t freeze!” protested Jim indignantly. “It can’t be ice.”
I attempted to crawl up the plank.
“Wait a minute,” advised Jim. “Hold on.”
And after a minute, he returned with another and heavier plank. By manoeuvring the two planks in relation to the rusty old pump pipe, we got a sort of eternal triangle figured out, and up this I hinched and hunched until Jim could get a grip on the slack of my shoulder. From there on it was easy.
I walked quickly back 10 paces and shook myself. Except for the seat of my pants and my knees, I was dry. Jim was industriously jabbing down into the well with the lighter of the two planks.
“Come on,” I commanded, “let’s get the heck out of here. I’m dying.”
“But it can’t be ice!” cried Jim fanatically.
“Jim!” I uttered loud and firm. “I ought to know!”
At that moment, a car came along the road and slackened speed as the driver sighted us.
“Anything amiss?” called the man in the car. He was evidently a farmer.
“Is it possible,” called back Jim. “that there’s ice in this well?”
“Probably is,” replied the farmer. “A little seepage water on top of the fill.”
“Fill?” called Jim.
“I started to fill that well up, for safety’s sake,” said the farmer, “but I never did get around to finishing it.”
“It should be full of seepage.” protested Jim.
“Not this land,” laughed the farmer. “Driest section in the county. The wells all went dry half a century ago.”
I started for the car. Jim followed. The farmer drove on.
“I guess,” I submitted, clammily, “when you see an old abandoned farm, it’s best to pass right by.”
“Don’t even wonder,” agreed Jim.